The CZU-inspired birth of Three Sisters Three Corners at Casalegno’s

Owner Gina Lund injects new life into the historic Casalegno's market.
Owner Gina Lund injects new life into the historic Casalegno’s market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Gina Lund, like so many others around Santa Cruz County, saw her life and community changed by the 2020 fires. She has reinvented a nearly 100-year-old country store in Soquel, aiming to create a new community center — and reinforce the local economy of food growers.

Heads up, foodies: I’m now sending alerts every time I publish a story. Sign up for texts from me here. Thanks to those of you who’ve already subscribed and offered your thoughts! And catch up on my recent work here.

Lily

If you drive too fast, as many do on the winding road that connects Soquel to the summit, you might be tempted to keep on driving as you pass the little convenience store at Soquel San Jose and Laurel Glen roads. But it’s definitely worth pulling over. In its nearly 100-year history, Casalegno’s market has been a farmstand, a family home, a market and a de facto information center for the Santa Cruz Mountains community that lines the Old San Jose Road corridor.

Before the pandemic, commuters, neighbors and day trippers from over the hill would stop into Casalegno’s for a soda, a cup of coffee or a bag of chips. Now if they pass through the screen door, they find a very different scene. The sodas have been replaced by kombuchas, local wine and craft beer. Instead of plastic-wrapped snacks, visitors can buy baskets of sun-warmed cherry tomatoes, homemade organic baked goods and ice cream made from fresh strawberries from a farm down the road. The shelves are lined with hand-molded pottery, glass jars filled with dried herbs and antique spice cans. Outside, purple and yellow strawflowers decorate a small patio, where most visitors can’t help but finger through a rack of vintage clothing.

This isn’t due to a change in ownership, but rather a change of heart. Gina Lund has owned and operated Casalegno’s since 2009, but after enduring the challenges of the pandemic — and losing her home in the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August 2020 — she decided that when she reopened the store, she would sell only products in which she believed.

“We decided to drop the things we don’t want to sell, that we don’t believe that we can stand behind,” she says. Lund, a master gardener and herbalist, now limits products packaged in plastic and chooses to support local businesses instead of large corporations.

Gina Lund serves homemade baked goods, coffee, dried herbs and local products at Three Sisters Three Corners at Casalegno's.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It was a change Lund started making before the pandemic, but in February 2020, after running the historic Casalegno’s market for 11 years, she decided she needed a break. With a world shutdown on the horizon, Lund decided to close the market for a couple of months and move from the five-bedroom house attached to the market to property she and her husband, Gardner, owned in the small, off-the-grid mountain community of Last Chance. There, they nourished a flourishing garden and nursery, growing “everything from guavas, lemons and apples to plums and pears, and all kinds of herbs.” Lund also worked to solidify her herbal knowledge.

The life-changing fire

Then, that August, while Lund prepared for a trip to gather herbs with her eldest and youngest daughters, a lightning storm struck the Santa Cruz Mountains, setting off what would become the most devastating wildfire in the county’s history.

From an elevation of 2,000 feet, she and Gardner looked out toward Monterey Bay and watched Butano State Park and Waddell Creek catch fire. But without receiving evacuation instructions, they hesitated to leave their beloved home. Even as they watched planes drop great plumes of flame retardant on nearby fires, they watered their property down and went to get supplies in town. In those first days, “no one was worried about the fires yet.”

Lookout checks in on how the recovery effort is going in Santa Cruz County: In a multi-part series, we talk to the folks...

Lund continued to plan on going on her trip and to pack her car with tinctures and herbs, while monitoring their satellite phone for calls to evacuate. Then, a few days later, while her youngest daughter was taking a nap, Lund heard an ominous sign — redwood leaves dropping on the roof of the house. “That’s when I started to get scared,” she says. “Redwoods don’t usually catch fire like that.” That evening, while still waiting for an evacuation call, she saw flames rise over 50 to 100 feet over the trees between her and her family’s way off the mountain.

At Three Sisters Three Corners, Gina and Gardner Lund hope to share information about how to protect homes from fire.
At Three Sisters Three Corners, Gina and Gardner Lund hope to share information about how to protect homes from fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lund and Gardner decided it was time to leave. Lund left first with their daughter Honey, one of their dogs and a few important possessions, including her jewelry and her father’s ashes. Gardner stayed to pack up a few things, but promised he would text her when he left. While Lund made it safely down backroads to Greyhound Rock, Gardner faced a harrowing journey through flaming roads that almost ignited his car. The heat destroyed his possessions in the car, including nearly 20 baby chicks. “He was the last person out for sure,” Lund says.

Like many residents in Last Chance, they lost their home in the fire. Lund is still confused as to why they never received a call to evacuate and instead were forced to endure a terrifying escape through a flaming forest.

“Apparently the community had had a plan for many years to go to the mill site, which I think is common knowledge now,” she says. “But by the time the fire hit, with a lack of evacuation notice, nobody went to the mill site because everybody felt like they just had to run.”

Thankfully, Lund, Gardner and their children were able to move back into the home attached to Casalegno’s while they recovered from their ordeal. They still live there, and their experience inspired the new thinking about the store as a community center to spread awareness on how to protect homes from fire.

Before losing her home, Lund’s knowledge about wildfires amounted to “very little to none,” but her experience became a crash course in how wildfires spread, how to protect a home, signs to watch for to learn when to evacuate and what to do to post-fire to protect the natural environment.

Now, she says, she has “fire vision,” and can visualize what an area will look like if it’s burned out. “I do not want to see that. My goal is to never see that here,” she says, pointing to the untouched and overgrown wilderness across the street from the store.

“Highly intelligent people who live in this community don’t think it will burn. And it’s only because they haven’t put eyes on it,” she says. “They haven’t experienced it, and it’s this weird thing with human nature where if you don’t experience it, you don’t think it’ll happen to you.”

Through volunteer work after the CZU fire, Lund connected with John Liu, a filmmaker, ecologist and founder of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, a community that works to restore damaged ecosystems worldwide. The two became good friends, and Liu inspired Lund to establish an Ecosystem Restoration Community Center at Casalegno’s in order to share information about how to rejuvenate fire-ravaged areas.

Gina and Gardner Lund stand in the flourishing nursery behind their market.
Gina and Gardner Lund stand in the flourishing nursery behind their market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Basically anybody who wants to teach something, if it’s something that is connected to health, the earth, and local goods, we’re down,” Lund says. “The goal is to offer the space up for that and so we’re just slowly working our way towards it.”

This week, Lund is hosting the first event — a meetup for neighbors to connect and discuss fire safety and emergency preparedness.

When Lund and Gardner finally reopened Casalegno’s in December 2021, after more than a year and a half of being closed, they were mindful of how they wanted to proceed. While they will stay open seven days a week, eventually they would like to be open in the mornings until the early afternoon for coffee and pastries. In the afternoon, the indoor café would close, but the market would still offer fresh, local produce paid for via the honor system in the fridge and patio outside.

Lund chose the name Three Sisters Three Corners at Casalegno’s for the market, referring to the ancient and mutually beneficial practice of planting the “three sisters” — beans, corn and squash — together: “It’s all about love.”

With all the changes, Lund is mindful about honoring the history of the market and plans to add pictures and information about its storied place in the community. And, she says, don’t expect a new sign on the front of the building: Lund promises the store itself will always be known as Casalegno’s.

Follow @3sisters3corners on Instagram for information about new products. For information about community meetups, email 3sisters3corners@gmail.com or call 831-334-6911.

Follow Lookout on social media